Sean Connery and a Coca Cola: Alleviating Fatigue in the Air

Natasha Feiner

In the twentieth century crew fatigue was a major health and safety concern in the aviation industry. Alongside other health issues, such as cardiovascular function and eyesight, crew fatigue was tightly regulated. Flight time limitations, which regulated the hours of work and rest of pilots and cabin crew, existed at both the state and company level. As my PhD research shows, however, flight time limitations did not completely eliminate fatigue in the aviation industry. As such, workers often had to find other ways of managing their fatigue. Based largely on the oral testimonies of ex-pilots and cabin crew, what follows here outlines how crews personally managed fatigue in the air.


Food and Drink

For some people eating a cooked meal on board was important. Others preferred to graze. Joshua* a cabin attendant who worked for BOAC in the 1960s and 1970s used to ‘cross the Atlantic’ on bananas and cheese rolls. For Jane, a cabin attendant who worked for BOAC in the 1970s, Coca Cola was important:

I must have drunk half of the cans of Coca Cola on the aircraft because it was an instant hit of sugar. Any instant hit of sugar that could keep you going. I don’t touch anything like that now, I’m on mineral water or herbal teas, the odd coffee. But at the time Coca Cola.

For others, alcohol played an important part in managing fatigue. Gerry, who worked as a pilot for BOAC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, suggested that alcohol was used as both a stimulant and a sedative:

But I have to say that that night in America when you got there, it was something, you know go and have a few beers, was a way to stay awake, socialise, I mean I know alcohol eventually sends you to sleep, but initially when it’s still a social thing, you know, it kept you going so that’s what people did.



In-flight rest was very important for crews operating long-haul flights. From the 1970s, bunk-rest was mandatory on long-haul flights. Though some crew members found this helpful, others struggled to sleep in bunks. William, who worked as a flight engineer in the 1970s and 1980s said that bunks were not ‘conducive to good sleep’. For pilots and flight engineers, an informal culture of flight deck napping – sometimes referred to as ‘controlled rest’ – was important. Although the safety of this was called into question in 1972 after an entire flight deck crew was found to be asleep at the same time en route from Sydney to Honolulu, from the ex-pilots I have spoken to, it seems that the practice remained widespread regardless.[1] As William noted:

It was quite common. It was approved really, everybody you know captain or first officer would say to the others, ‘can I close my eyes for a minute?’ and he’d [the captain] say yes or no.

A similarly informal napping culture also existed in the cabin. According to Eleanor, who worked as cabin crew for BOAC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, crew would informally allow each other breaks. If there was a spare seat in the cabin, crew would ‘pull a blanket’ over themselves and have a twenty-minute nap. For some, sedatives played an important role in pre- and post-flight sleep. A number of the flight engineers and cabin crew I have interviewed have told me that they used sleeping tablets, often prescribed by personal GPs, during their working lives. While some took Temazepam, others were prescribed Magadon. Though some used sleeping tablets frequently on long-haul trips, others treated their prescription as a ‘back up’, as Eleanor explained:

My doctor gave me some. I explained to him that I rarely, I rarely felt exhausted but would it be a good idea, I was seeing him about something else, would it be a good idea if I had some with me so that if I started to feel it building up with the time changes… he’d known me for a long time, he knew I wouldn’t be silly with them and take them as a matter of course. I made it clear to him I didn’t want to. Just, it was a, it was a sort of back up if you like.



For pilots, socialising with the cabin crew was important. According to ex-pilot Adam, cabin crew played a key role in alleviating the fatigue of flight deck crew. Not only would cabin crew bring pilots meals and coffees, but they intermittently came in to chat. According to Adam this social interaction helped pilots maintain alertness. For some cabin crew, socialising with passengers was the best way of maintaining alertness. For Joshua, when the first signs of fatigue began to show, he would seek out celebrity passengers:

Every aircraft you had a passenger list. Every single person was down there and the important ones were highlighted so if I was feeling really really tired and I didn’t have another hour left in me, I thought I’ll go and bother Sean Connery for a minute.

Reflecting the subjective nature of fatigue, then, different modes of managing fatigue worked for different people.


*Pseudonyms are used throughout.

[1] Arthur Reed, ‘Ministry Inquiry over BOAC crew asleep at controls of jet flying 30,000 ft’, The Times, Dec 13 1972.